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Flashback Friday: Christina Aguilera ‘Back To Basics’

Although my first exposure to American pop singer Christina Aguilera came in the form of her explosive contribution to Lady Marmalade in her still much-maligned Xtina phase of penciled on eyebrows and leather chaps, I fell in love with her voice from the first moment I heard it.

That song, along and her collaboration with Ricky Martin on his track Nobody Wants To Be Lonely, epitomised a period in my childhood characterised by long car trips, where access to the infinite streaming repository of Spotify didn’t exist. Instead, a small selection of CDs, purchased at either Infinity or whatever petrol station we refuelled at, were played on loop.

My mother had, and still has, a fastidious obsession with all of the soul/blues music from way-back-when like Baby Love, Say A Little Prayer For You and perhaps most appallingly Andy WilliamsMusic To Watch Girls By.  I cannot put into words how much I hate that song. It makes my skin crawl and my blood boil; a vitriolic bile rises to the back of my throat when I think about the auditory torture I was subjected to in those long car trips up north by my mother’s heinous music selection.

The point of that diatribe was that songs like Lady Marmalade a welcome break from my mother’s terrible music and represented a contemporary actuality of what pop music was like in the 00s. Power ballads, powerful ladies and some very questionable fashion choices.

For many years I actually thought Aguilera was African American. Who wouldn’t with that unbelievable powerful, rich voice? It was only when I saw her video for Ain’t No Other Man that I realised she was white. Very, very white, despite what her virtual Blackface in the video for the ghetto-rific Can’t Hold Us Down would have you believe.

To me, Aguilera’s fifth studio album is very important in the Xtina-verse for many reasons. From the perspective of genre, it helped to reignite the old-school glamour of the golden days of film in Hollywood. You have to remember that Christina completely reinvented herself for this album. She didn’t just look like a blond-tressed 40s sex siren, she inhabited it. She adopted the alter ego of Baby Jane (inspired by the 1962 film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?) and began to wear a look that emulated that of classic Hollywood stars, such as Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield.

Stylistically, Back To Basics combined elements of old-school jazz, blues, soul and horn samples with hip hop and urban influences for contemporary take on some of Aguilera’s biggest 1920s-1940s inspirations, which included some of the music’s most revered African American entertainers such as Etta James, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Otis Redding.

The confluence of these unique factors meant that Aguilera’s fifth album had a distinct sound and image that was completely different to what anyone else was doing at the time. For the the first time, she had a genre at her disposal which fully catered to her enormously melismatic and powerful voice which had only been previously utilised to its full extent on ballads like Beautiful and The Voice Within.

The release of first single, Ain’t No Other Man, inspired by her then marriage to music producer Jordan Bratman kicked started the success of her album. The song would go on to win her Best Female Pop Vocal Performance at the 49th Annual Grammy Awards in 2007. The release of Back To Basics debuted atop the US Billboard 200 and sold 346 000 copies in its first week. It went on to reach number one in 15 other countries worldwide.

The album, unlike her previous two incarnations Stripped and Christina Aguilera, was strictly defined by its genre and a work of pure class. Aguilera had always used song as a medium to express herself and her struggles, and Back To Basics was no different. Oh Mother detailed the alleged abuse Christina and her mother suffered at the hands of her father, with a large majority of the rest of the songs, including Without You, On Our Way, Save Me From Myself and The Right Man, were dedicated to the love she had for her husband Bratman. In The Right Man, she sings about finally finding the right man for her and her future daughter, so that she would never know of the abuse Aguilera’s own father subjected her to.

Hoping to capitalise on the previous success of one of Aguilera’s most revered songs Beautiful, the second single off the album was Hurt, a beautiful ballad about the pain that comes with losing a loved one and all the things left unsaid. Despite only achieving moderate commercial success, in my opinion it is one of the most beautiful songs she’s ever created. It’s so haunting, such a longing wistfulness to it, that it immediately makes me think of the people I fear losing the most and all of the things I should say to them. It culminates in an epic refrain, before quietly ending, with Christina sadly crooning:

I’m sorry for blaming you

For everything I just couldn’t do

And I’ve hurt myself

by hurting you

No one can fail to empathise with the feeling of disappointing someone, and never getting to make up for it. It’s a powerful song with stays with you for a long time.

Candyman, probably the album’s most renowned hit, used such a time-tested, surefire formula for success that it was impossibly catchy radio fodder instantly. It took inspiration from blues, jazz and swing and was a tribute to The Andrews Sisters song Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, albeit a more risqué version full of sexual innuendos. Perhaps here is where the potency of Aguilera’s vocal prowess becomes most evident. Spanning two octaves, she finishes the song off belting out an impossibly high, perfectly attuned note that sounds like it could break glass, a feat very few artists could ever hope to achieve.

This ability to exert complete and utter control over her vocal range is what truly makes Aguilera an expert in her field. Every warble is controlled with the exact precision of a master vocalist, every utterance a part of her preconceived plan for sonic excellence. To me, there are very few female singers to come through in recent generations that could possibly ever hope to match her talent. And Back To Basics was the epitome of her ability to almost, quite literally, blow people away with her talent. 

Unfortunately, Aguilera never again managed to achieve the level of artist excellency in her future musical endeavours. Subsequent albums Bionic and Lotus were critical and commercial flops, savaged by critics and made up of unoriginal trashy pop hooks. But for all her mishaps and reinventions, her third album will stand the test of time because of where it tries to take you: back to basics.